As school starts, parents wrangle for best teachers

Students and parents arrive on the first day of classes at					Woodridge Elementary School in Stone Mountain in 2016. Some parents					begin angling to get their student assigned to different teachers					after they find out which class the young person has been put into,					causing headaches for teachers and principals. KENT D.					JOHNSON/kdjohnson@ajc.com
Students and parents arrive on the first day of classes at Woodridge Elementary School in Stone Mountain in 2016. Some parents begin angling to get their student assigned to different teachers after they find out which class the young person has been put into, causing headaches for teachers and principals. KENT D. JOHNSON/kdjohnson@ajc.com

Credit: Kent Johnson

Credit: Kent Johnson

Principals have already assigned most students to classrooms for the start of school, but as parents learn who’ll be teaching their child, some will try to wrangle a change.

The right teacher can have a profound effect on how much a student learns — whether he or she excels or stumbles, with implications for years to come.

Yet, while parents may be thinking only of their own child’s success, principals must consider all the students in their school. They’ve typically been laboring since spring to arrange the children like pieces of a complicated puzzle, balancing not only abilities and genders but also the personalities and other nuances of both kids and teachers.

“It’s an art,” said Tracey Smith, an elementary school principal in Forsyth County. “It’s painstaking.” Aside from hiring teachers, she said, the matches are the most important decisions she makes.

Principals, as a rule, are loath to move a student this late in the process, though the right approach by a parent can get them to do it.

Most parents, principals say, are unsuccessful because they haven’t done their homework and because they fail to recognize the obvious — that principals and teachers are people too. A request like this demands the utmost in tact and subtlety and a recognition of the myriad factors that went into the composition of the classroom, which, principals say, is as crucial to the success of a school as casting is to a film.

With metro Atlanta schools set to open from late July to early August, principals are bracing themselves for these high-stakes encounters. Sometimes, when parents don’t get what they want, it can cast a pall over the entire school year; parents may take it out on the teacher they got stuck with, which isn’t the best outcome for anyone, especially the student.

“It’s horrible to say but you could put a target on your kids’ back,” said Karen Hawley, a retired principal in Cherokee County. Teachers may try to avoid the possibility of future interactions with “high maintenance” parents. The children of such parents can then miss out on opportunities, like a leadership role, that would necessitate more parental face time.

“What you want to be is a parent who works cooperatively with the principal and the teachers,” Hawley said.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to ask for a classroom change. It may seem obvious, but boorish behavior doesn’t go very far. Even so, it happens all the time.

“I’ve seen people get really ugly in the office,” said Adam Belanger, a metro Atlanta parent who frequently volunteered in his kids’ elementary school. “They would literally sit there in the office and say ‘What do I have to do to get help? This school sucks,’ ” he said. “You expect someone to help you after you’ve behaved like that?”

Veteran educators say parents have become more demanding in recent decades as they’ve adopted a more hands-on mode of parenting. Hawley, the retired principal, said she did this with her own son, now 30, and wonders if it cheated him of opportunities to learn and adapt.

It was a sentiment echoed by Beth Long, a Cherokee County School District administrator. “It’s really important for children to learn to adapt to their environment,” said Long, who was an elementary school principal until last spring. All too often parents these days try to fix the perfect environment for their kids, she said. “In life, you’re not always going to get your way, so I think it’s important to learn to have a positive attitude about the hand you’re dealt.”

Even so, she said parents should bring specific concerns to their principal.

Beyond overt characteristics, like gender, academic achievement or special needs, principals strive to design classes based on characteristics of both students and teachers. Is the child shy or talkative, calm or bouncy, a book learner or hands-on? Is the teacher boisterous, warm, stern? Principals crave street intel, too. They want to know if kids don’t get along or are lifelong friends who get along too well. Do they push each other to strive, or physically? They also want to know about things that could overshadow the learning experience, like a divorce or a death in the family.

Smith, the Forsyth County principal, moved a child last year after learning her mother had died, choosing a teacher she felt would be nurturing.

Syvetta Young, a retired principal from rural southeast Georgia, said she only granted one request for a different teacher in her whole career — when a parent came to her in tears. The teacher was an old-timer who had taught this mother when she was in fourth grade. The teacher had terrified her.

“I hate to say ‘old school’ because I’m old school too, but she did a lot of yelling,” Young conceded about the teacher. She explained this to the teacher, who merely remembered the mom as a good student.

One common blunder parents make is telling the principal they want a specific teacher.

“A lot of times they wanted to pick who they heard was a really good teacher, but they didn’t really know if they were a good teacher or not,” said Bill Sloan, a retired school principal who now runs the Georgia Retired Educators Association.

Smith, the principal in Forsyth, said, “Most come in saying ‘I want her to be in Mrs. Jones’ second grade classroom; everyone at the pool says she’s the best.”

As noted, principals take hiring seriously, and may see a dismissive attitude about a teacher they vetted as an insult. Parents can still angle for a particular teacher, but the most effective ones reverse engineer the request, honestly assessing their own child’s needs and digging for compatible traits in the teacher they covet.

“That’s normal,” said Hawley. “That’s a smart parent, actually.”

That could be a difficult challenge for parents who don’t know their school well, which is yet another reason for spending time there as a volunteer, said Belanger, who, along with his wife, served a stint as the elementary school PTA president. Twice they hinted ahead of the class assignment process that it would be great if each of their two girls got so-and-so, and twice it happened. Eighteen of the 20 teachers in the building had identified that teacher as the best.

“I wanted the best,” Belanger said.

He only once asked for a change after assignments were made. Each year, his daughter had been with the most advanced students but suddenly was assigned to a different classroom. When he inquired, he was told the assignment had been an error, and she was placed back with her previous class. Years later, he’s still unsure whether that was true or merely repayment for the goodwill he and his wife had earned with their hours of volunteer work and plates of home-cooked lasagna for the principal and the teachers.

Did the intervention matter? Belanger said it mattered to his daughter, who took pride in her school work and worked hard at it. He’s not so sure it affected the arc of her academic career. But then again, when he was in fourth grade, a change in teachers may have changed his own life.

“The kids that were left behind in Mrs. Smith’s class, they were the ones who were in trouble later in life,” said Belanger, a photographer who owns his own business. While he was recounting that story on the phone, his younger sister walked into the room.

“I was in Mrs. Smith’s class,” she told him.

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